Missouri attorney general files class-action lawsuit against schools with mask mandates
Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt said Tuesday he had filed a class action lawsuit against school districts in Missouri requiring students and teachers to wear masks.
The lawsuit, which calls mask mandates "unreasonable, arbitrary and capricious," argues that they can't remain without authorization from the state education board and that state and local health officials had not required such mandates.
Schmitt, who is also running for U.S. Senate as a Republican, specifically names Columbia Public Schools, its board and superintendent in the suit. Other districts in the state, including Springfield Public Schools, have instituted mask mandates for the school year, which began for most Missouri students Monday.
"We filed this suit today because we fundamentally don’t believe in forced masking, rather that parents and families should have the power to make decisions on masks, based on science and facts," Schmitt said.
Springfield Superintendent Grenita Lathan cited last school year when she announced the district's decision on July 30, aiming to curb the spread of the virus and prevent students from having to quarantine. The measure was temporary, she said, until regional vaccination rates increase and positive case numbers go down.
Missouri schools & COVID-19:Springfield Public Schools requires masking for all students, staff this fall
"The unfortunate reality is that COVID-19 cases continue to surge in Missouri, where vaccination rates remain alarmingly low, and children under the age of 12 are not yet eligible to receive the vaccine," Springfield Public Schools spokesperson Stephen Hall said in a statement. "In our case, SPS is working in consultation with the Springfield-Greene County Health Department to ensure our protocols align with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics. Our decisions are supported by local data reflecting the impact of COVID-19 here in Springfield."
Columbia Public Schools was "extremely disappointed to learn" of the lawsuit, according to a Tuesday statement from district spokesperson Michelle Baumstark.
"The decision to require masks is not a forever decision. It is something currently necessary to keep our scholars safely learning in our schools," Baumstark said. "The health and safety of Missouri citizens, especially its youngest citizens, should always be the first priority of our great state’s elected leadership.
"The decision to file suit against a public school district after a local decision is made in the interest of safety and keeping students in school will waste taxpayer dollars and resources, which are better spent investing in our students."
The Missouri School Boards’ Association has advised districts that masking is a local decision to be made in consultation with health officials.
"We are very disappointed in the lawsuit and the lack of respect for local control,” executive director Melissa Randol said. “No one likes to wear masks but what we dislike more than wearing masks is seeing our children and our teachers sick and being forced to close our schools and go virtual due to high community transmission and positivity rates.”
Randol said MSBA supports districts deciding if, and how much, masking will be required.
“We have an obligation to protect our children,” she said. “In some communities, that’s going to mean wearing a mask for a limited time so we can begin to get this nightmare behind us.”
Schmitt said a school's decision to require masks "flies in the face of science," citing lower risk of transmission, severe illness and death for COVID-19 in young people.
Current scientific consensus has determined that "when community rates of COVID-19 are high, there is an increased likelihood that (COVID-19) will be introduced to, and potentially transmitted within, a school ... setting," according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Current federal data labels every county in Missouri as having "high" community transmission level, with the Show-Me State having recently fought one of the worst Delta variant outbreaks in the country. The more contagious strain has infected more children and young people, who were less impacted by earlier varveriants of COVID-19.
Districts using "multiple strategies" for virus prevention — including universal mask use — were more successful in preventing cases, according to several scientific studies cited by the CDC.
House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, a Springfield Democrat, criticized the lawsuit and called it a political move.
"If Eric Schmitt successfully blocks local schools from adopting mask requirements, more Missouri children will get sick from COVID-19, forcing many school districts to return to remote instruction in order to contain outbreaks," Quade said. "This lawsuit might help Schmitt win a Republican U.S. Senate primary, but it puts the lives and education of Missouri children in jeopardy.”
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said President Joe Biden thought actions like Schmitt's were "completely unacceptable," the Kansas City Star reported.
Schmitt has been vocally opposed to mask mandates broadly, having already filed suit against St. Louis and Kansas City area mandates. A circuit judge ruled in the AG's favor, putting the St. Louis County mandate on hold. Schmitt sued the recently reinstated Kansas City mandate shortly after.
Claudette Riley is the education reporter for the News-Leader. Email news tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.